When Ella Fitzger­ald came to Cork

The First Lady of Song played two mem­o­rable con­certs at the jazz fes­ti­val in 1980, writes Des O’Driscoll

Irish Examiner - Supplement - - GUINNES CORK JAZZ FESTIVAL -

IN LATE Oc­to­ber 1979, the mem­bers of the wel­come com­mit­tee of the Cork Jazz Fes­ti­val stood at Cork Air­port nudg­ing each other.

“It must be him,” said one, point­ing at a black man who had just got off the flight from London. “You go check.” One of the com­mit­tee ner­vously ap­proached the visi­tor and asked, “Are you Mr Peterson?” When the re­ply came as a gruff “No!”, they knew they were in trou­ble. Os­car Peterson, the great jazz pi­anist and sup­posed head­liner for their fes­ti­val, wasn’t com­ing. He was too ill to travel.

As it turned out, they got along with­out him very well. Over the next few days, Lee­side would swing to the likes of Art Blakey, Humphrey Lyt­tel­ton and a young vi­o­lin­ist by the name of Nigel Kennedy for the sec­ond in­car­na­tion of a then John Player-spon­sored fes­ti­val that was al­ready build­ing quite a rep­u­ta­tion.

Once bit­ten, twice shy, how­ever. So when the com­mit­tee landed the ul­ti­mate head­liner the fol­low­ing year, they re­solved that noth­ing could go wrong. Fes­ti­val co-founder Pearse Har­vey was despatched to London to en­sure that Ella Fitzger­ald re­ally did make it to Cork.

He met the 63-year-old singer in Heathrow with her fe­male as­sis­tant, and they waited for the flight in the VIP area. Fitzger­ald re­quested a Per­rier wa­ter from the at­ten­dant, and when she was told they were out of it, the star wouldn’t have any­thing else.

De­spite the lack of ab­sence of her favourite tip­ple, Har­vey re­mem­bers a warm and pleas­ant fig­ure — “a real lady”. She did ex­press her un­hap­pi­ness at not be­ing able spend more time in Ire­land as, de­spite an al­ready gru­elling se­ries of dates, her tour man­ager had booked her for more gigs.

Be­fore Fitzger­ald even took off from London, the Ir­ish wel­come had be­gun. The Aer Lin­gus staff made a big fuss of their guest star when she ar­rived at the plane, with the cap­tain an­nounc­ing over the tan­noy that he was a big fan of her mu­sic. He then slipped on a tape of her tunes to a rous­ing cheer from the other pas­sen­gers.

In Cork, a de­lighted Fitzger­ald pulled her fur coat around her af­ter de­scend­ing the gang­way in the au­tumn sun­shine be­fore a bevy of re­porters, lo­cal dig­ni­taries and re­lieved fes­ti­val chair­man Jim Moun­tjoy. Mis­sion ac­com­plished for Har­vey.

Fitzger­ald, how­ever, had one more task to ful­fil be­fore she left the air­port. She wanted an Ir­ish stamp on her pass­port. For some rea­son, the im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials weren’t too in­clined to ful­fil this re­quest for the great jazz singer. She emerged dis­ap­pointed to meet the fes­ti­val chair­man.

“I went back in with her pass­port,” re­calls Moun­tjoy. “The im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cer was a bit tetchy about it, but he stamped it, and then wrote the word ‘sou­venir’ across the stamp.”

The Cork Ex­am­iner re­ported: “The de­lighted Ella re­leased her nor­mally guarded pass­port to in­ter­ested on­look­ers who dis­cov­ered that her mother was an Amer­i­can Chero­kee In­dian and that her sec­ond name was Jane. Ap­par­ently she has kept th­ese facts se­cret from the pub­lic un­til this late stage of her ca­reer.”

A limou­sine sup­plied by Ford, which still had a big man­u­fac­tur­ing plant in the city and was one of the cor­po­rates that weighed in be­hind the jazz fes­ti­val, trans­ported the star to the Metropole Ho­tel on MacCur­tain Street where she stayed for her time in Cork.

The two con­certs were a huge suc­cess. “When she went on stage, she gave it her all. She was quite old by then, but you could still see that she re­ally had some­thing spe­cial,” re­mem­bers Har­vey. “She also had a re­ally good rap­port with the au­di­ence and they loved her.”

Har­vey, who also wrote a jazz col­umn for the Evening

Echo, later re­called: “When she sang on stage it was pos­si­ble to hear a new rugged tim­bre in her voice which, though it in­di­cated the sad and in­evitable pas­sage of time, it seemed to lend a new di­men­sion to much of what she sang.”

Im­me­di­ately af­ter her sec­ond gig, Fitzger­ald fa­cil­i­tated a brief press con­fer­ence in her crowded dress­ing room in the Opera House. Mar­ian Fin­u­cane – then a 30-year-old who was among a large num­ber of RTÉ staff in Cork for the Labour Party con­fer­ence that week­end – was among those who asked a ques­tion of the Amer­i­can, but Har­vey re­mem­bers the young broad­caster get­ting a cool re­sponse from the non­plussed singer.

At least by then, Fitzger­ald was prob­a­bly af­ter get­ting ac­cess to her favourite French min­eral wa­ter, and Moun­tjoy re­calls that her rider in­cluded a re­quest for chicken soup. She also quipped that she still had a bot­tle of Ir­ish whiskey at home that she had been given on a visit to Dublin decades ear­lier.

In the morn­ing, be­fore she left the ho­tel, the Amer­i­can singer told Moun­tjoy she’d have loved to have left her room to come see Aus­tralian trum­peter Bob Barnard and his band, who were play­ing the late night ses­sion in the Metropole ball­room. “But she said she was afraid to come down in case she’d be mobbed,” says Moun­tjoy.

When Har­vey went to bring Fitzger­ald back to the air­port, she cut a tired fig­ure. In­stead of re­lax­ing or mak­ing the most of her sur­round­ings, it was back on the plane for more gigs, and she grum­bled that her book­ing agent had signed up for more than she had re­alised.

Within a few years, her health would re­ally start to suf­fer. Fitzger­ald went through sev­eral hos­pi­tal­i­sa­tions in the mid-1980s. In 1993, both her legs were am­pu­tated be­low the knee due to com­pli­ca­tions from di­a­betes. The First Lady of Song died in June, 1996, aged 79. For the 2,000 peo­ple who were lucky enough to see her sing in Cork, how­ever, she will al­ways be fondly re­mem­bered.

Main pic­ture: Richard Mills

Ella Fitzger­ald in Cork Opera House for the Guin­ness Cork Jazz Fes­ti­val in 1980; be­low, get­ting off the plane at Cork Air­port with Pearse Har­vey.

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